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More food for thought

01. Dezember 2015

  • Erstellt von Josef Zens
  • 0
  • A Wissenschaftskommunikation

Foto: Gesine Born/WiD

As a courtesy to Simon Singh I am writing this in English. I was quite impressed by his candid talk about the Good, the Bad, and the Pointless in science communication. It was funny and inspiring, and of course somewhat controversial. The basic message was: The scicomm formats that are successful are often cheap and grassroots-like. For example “Skeptics in the Pub”, the “Cambridge Science Festival” or videos by Vi Hart. The big projects, on the other hand, are rather quirky, overly artsy, and they reach, put in relation to the invested money, small audiences. One of the worst projects ever in Simon’s view was the “Lab in the Lorry” traveling to schools.

Now, we do have big scicomm projects in Germany as well, we have or had a truck, a ship, we even had a science train. Are those all projects too big to fail? I won’t judge here but I’d like to mention a few things. Disclaimer: I do institutional communications, and I accompanied several big projects together with “Wissenschaft im Dialog”, the latter being the host of the meeting in Nürnberg where Simon talked.

First: We are taking risks with every communications project. We are taking risks like Simon does as an author and like scientists do with their research. We all know that some projects don’t deliver the results we had hoped for. But how does one measure impact or success in public relations: by attendance rates? By knowledge transfer? This is an ongoing debate within communications professionals, and there are quite sophisticated tools for it. Plus: Success can be quite different for different people or interest groups. Let me just say this: Sometimes, it is a huge success when a minister or other important stakeholders take notice of a project or endorse it. To put it in other words: To apply the logic of a best-selling author, with several million copies of his books sold, to scicomm projects is maybe not the only way to measure success.

In the evening, we were talking about risk communication and communicating uncertainty. I stated in the debate that scientists have a fundamental communications problem if they stick to their principles. There will always be a scientific uncertainty, but once you communicate this you get attacked by opponents who claim “the scientists don’t know yet – so why should we burn less fossil fuel or why should we make vaccines mandatory”. A linguist, Nina Janich, and a communication psychologist, Michaela Maier, offered valuable advice on how to phrase different kinds of uncertainty. There’s the uncertainty of being not sure about certain findings, and there’s the uncertainty of being sure but with other scientists also sure claiming something else. Volker Stollorz mentioned a nice example of communicating uncertainty with hurricane predictions: The cone of probability where a hurricane makes landfall, eg. here, it will hit with 90 per cent probability, here it will hit with 80 or 70 per cent. People then could decide whether to stay or leave.

The fishbowl debate was really interesting but left some, well, uncertainty on how to communicate uncertainty in science in the best possible way.

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